Pelosi war-bill gamble pays off; The House speaker's triumph was anything but assured when she announced the measure -- without votes

March 24, 2007
By Noam Levey

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi faced an angry group of liberal lawmakers when she stepped into her red-walled Capitol office on the afternoon of March 8.

That morning, the San Francisco Democrat had announced plans to push legislation requiring President Bush to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of August 2008 -- at the latest.

But the antiwar members of her party who gathered in the large conference room overlooking the National Mall wanted the war over sooner. Many were threatening to defy their leader and vote against the bill.

For 2 1/2 hours Pelosi listened, parrying each complaint with an argument she would make hundreds of times over the next two weeks: Democrats had to unite behind a bill that challenged Bush's management of the war.

Friday, Pelosi carried the day.

In the most difficult trial of her speakership, Pelosi pushed through the first legislation mandating an end to U.S. involvement in the Iraq war.

The 218-212 vote vindicated the risk she took in championing the controversial withdrawal plan before she had the votes.

And it rewarded the round-the-clock cajoling, lobbying and pleading by Pelosi and her top lieutenants, who worked until just before the vote to keep Democrats united behind the bill. In the end, only 14 Democrats voted against it.

'She was the general here, and there wasn't a stone left unturned, a person left uncontacted or a member whose position was left unknown,' said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), one of the chamber's staunchest war opponents, whose decision to back the bill helped put it over the edge. 'It was a brilliant campaign.'

Pelosi, who closed the debate for the Democrats on Friday, afterward called the vote the beginning of a 'new direction.'

'This new Congress voted to bring an end to the war in Iraq,' she said.

Less than a month ago, it was far from clear that the new speaker could get her party there. Democrats united behind a nonbinding resolution criticizing Bush's plan to deploy additional troops to Iraq, but they appeared to be splintering over what to do next when they took up an emergency spending bill to pay for the war.

Moderates, worried about meddling in military affairs, rebelled over a plan to require troops to meet a set of readiness standards before they could be sent to Iraq.

And lawmakers in the Out of Iraq Caucus, which has more than 80 members, demanded that the spending bill include a timeline for withdrawing U.S. forces -- an idea that party leaders had largely dismissed when they took power.

But after days of huddling with party leaders, Pelosi decided to embrace a timeline. On the morning of March 8, she strode into the ceremonial speaker's office to announce that Democrats would force the president to begin withdrawing U.S. troops no later than next year.

Pelosi acknowledged she didn't have votes to pass the measure. In fact, the bill was still in the drafting stage. But the speaker left no doubt about the stakes. 'We have to pass it,' she told dozens of journalists packed into the office.

The initial signs were not encouraging.

That morning, leading members of the Out of Iraq Caucus had walked out of a party meeting while Pelosi was still speaking and told reporters they would only support a bill with a timeline compelling a withdrawal by the end of this year.

Later that day in the speaker's office, they reiterated their complaints as the meeting dragged on through the afternoon, continuing even while members left to cast votes on the House floor.

As candy wrappers piled up on the long conference table, Pelosi assured the lawmakers that she wanted to end the war as soon as they did, according to several who were there. But she stressed that Democrats needed to get behind legislation that could pass.

Some of the lawmakers, including New York Reps. Jerrold Nadler and Maurice D. Hinchey, were swayed, prompting the antiwar faction to refer to the afternoon as Bloody Thursday.

Pelosi kept up the pressure. The same afternoon, she went downstairs to Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer's office, where the veteran Maryland lawmaker was meeting with moderate Democrats to assure them that the readiness requirements had been softened.

She sat down with Democrats who were to take up the bill the next week in the Appropriations Committee, pressing them to move it through without amendments.

Pelosi and her allies relentlessly pursued lawmakers in hallways, on their cellphones and on the floor of the House during votes.

Schakowsky said she was persuaded to back the bill after listening to Pelosi talk repeatedly about her commitment to ending the war.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), another outspoken war critic, said he was moved after Pelosi and her longtime ally Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) assured him they would insist that the timelines remain in the bill when House and Senate leaders worked out the differences between the two chambers' measures.

But a core group of liberal lawmakers continued to thwart the quest for the 218 votes needed.

The speaker was forced to postpone a floor vote on the measure last week, according to the leadership office. Then, when Pelosi still didn't have the votes, Democrats pushed the vote from Thursday to Friday this week.

As late as Wednesday, the outcome seemed in doubt as antiwar lawmakers tried to force consideration of an amendment to bring the war to a close by the end of the year. The bid was turned down by the Rules Committee.

Not until Thursday morning -- when Pelosi met with antiwar lawmakers again in a basement room of the Capitol to repeat her pitch and ask for four more votes -- did the final lawmakers come aboard and put Democrats over the top.

'Ultimately what delivered the votes for this were personal relationships the speaker had with members,' said Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), a moderate and a war critic who helped rally votes for the measure. 'Without the credibility that she had with parts of the party, this vote doesn't happen.'